A Virtual Blast

J.M. Hayes' latest mystery is fast, implausible and a whole lot of fun

At some point in this mystery involving online role-playing games, you could get the impression that you're one point-and-click away from showing up in a game yourself.

Like when Hailey the wolf materializes out of fictional ether. Or when the place where the protagonist hopes to restore his spiritual center turns out to be an Oracle Road sex shop. Or when a voice suddenly booms, "YOU CAN'T BE HERE," as old Mrs. Kraus sits at her computer in the middle of the night, nursing a recently killed avatar back to life in an Edenic setting among chirping birds and soaring butterflies.

Mrs. Kraus is startled. You're startled. It's fun. It's funny. It's frenetic. It's fiction in a 21st-century place where the veil between reality and fantasy floats thin.

The fifth work in the "Mad Dog and Englishman" series, Server Down is split-set between the Kansas home of Mad Dog and his brother (Sheriff English), and Tucson—Kansas-born author J.M. Hayes's current hometown.

The action opens at the traditional Yaqui Good Friday ceremony in Pascua Village. Sheriff English's law-school daughter, Heather, has come to Tucson for a symposium. She witnessed some of the Yaqui Easter ceremonies and e-mailed her wannabe-shaman uncle, Mad Dog, that these rituals are not to be missed. Without notifying anyone, Mad Dog and his wolf-hybrid Hailey jumped into his Mini Cooper and arrived around midnight. But before he gets to appreciate the sight of the women protecting Christ from the evil Chapeyekas, Mad Dog is accosted by a guy in braids and beads. Braids-and-beads guy stabs a cop with a switchblade bearing Mad Dog's name and escapes.

Meanwhile, Mad Dog's house in Kansas has been firebombed, and his brother thinks he might have a family death to investigate.

By the time Heather realizes that Mad Dog's in Tucson—after ambulances, jurisdictional squabbling between police, and a connection made between her and the murder suspect—Mad Dog has lost himself in the neighborhood, and braids-and-beads has shucked the Sioux trappings, become "The Professional" (assassin) and contracted to execute some nasty work on Heather's pretty, 23-year-old self.

That's all within the first couple dozen pages. You need to hang on.

The central mystery in the book is who is after Mad Dog, and why. Even The Professional is in the dark (which allows for a nifty plot twist). The action in Tucson has Heather searching for Mad Dog as she's tracked by a cop being tracked by The Professional. The action in Kansas has Sheriff English shuffling along behind a walker from one firebombing to another, and Mrs. Kraus doing detective work by playing the War of Worldcraft game. Their suspect turns out to be a virtual level-70 vampire wizard called Fig Zit.

The mystery is layered, and plot and themes are informed and complicated by the game.

Hayes's heroes are both likable and so bigger than life that they stretch credibility. Mad Dog, old enough to barely remember his hippie period, is a buff, bald pacifist. He looks like a gringo and identifies with his watered-down Cheyenne blood, and he practices a form of native religion.

Clever Heather is not only a law student, but also a deputy sheriff. She can run for long periods without tiring, call out straggling coyotes with an impressive howl, and flout attackers with tae kwon do.

And then there's Mad Dog's wolf, Hailey. Omnipresent. Omniscient. Probably omnivorous.

Hayes writes deftly. His descriptions are visual enough to imagine Server Down as a graphic novel. Although he slathers implausibilities throughout (All three actors are about to show up in the same emergency room? Hailey has once again arrived in the nick of time?), you accept them as part of the ride. He smoothly integrates the action and manipulates suspense through tight cuts. Most entertaining of all, however, is his narrator's sanguinely ironic voice. It's a lot like Mad Dog's; it just doesn't take itself too seriously.

And there's message in the madcap of Server Down. It won't give anything away to say that it involves the ease with which players are "killed" and "resurrected" in virtual reality.

The book is a kick to read. And it's quick: Thanks to technology, the mystery plays out in one night. If Mad Dog survives, he should be able to make it to Saturday's Pascua "Gloria"—the great ceremonial battle between good and evil that will lead to the Easter resurrection.

Hmm. I wonder if anyone ever considered turning that into a game?

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